Monday, February 9, 2015

Is your manuscript headed for the shredder? 15 formatting DO’s and DON’Ts to make editors fall in love.


Will your story survive the slushpile… only to end up in an editor’s recycle bin, trash can, or shredder?

A story manuscript that doesn’t look like a manuscript will get you exactly the WRONG kind of attention.  The kind that winds your story up in that virtual paper shredder before the editor gets to word one.

True, you’re submitting a children’s book.  But the core of all these DON’Ts is one simple fact:  your story can’t LOOK like a children’s book when you submit it.

What not to do.

Be very, very careful.  Violating any one of these will get your story tossed (or shredded) in disgust:

  • DON’T use “fun” or novelty fonts, no matter how well they suit your story.  Stick to 12-point Times New Roman.
  • DON’T include any art, clip art, symbols or graphics of any kind unless YOU (you personally, not your spouse, friend, or child) are the artist and the pictures are an intrinsic part of the story pitch.
  • DON’T use colours.  Your text should be plain BLACK.  Don’t use all-caps, either, or bold or italics or anything else that could distract a reader.
  • DON’T justify the text of your manuscript, even if you think it looks all booky and professional that way.  (This creates gaps that make your story hard to read.)
  • DON’T even think about creating a snazzy cover for your manuscript.  It looks raw and naked, sure.  Trust the editor’s imagination to see the potential there.
  • DON’T add instructions for the illustrations unless they’re absolutely essential to the story (e.g. “there’s a monster under the bed that her parents can’t see”), or if you have a page that’s blank except for an illustration.
  • DON’T try to insert “drop caps” – those enlarged first letters that start out chapters in real, official published books.
  • DON’T split up your book into pages, scenes, or anything else.  A 32-page picture-book manuscript will only take up about 3 or 4 manuscript pages.  Don’t even think about telling the editor where you want the pages broken up.  Trust her to know her job better than you do.

Format it right.

On the flipside, picture an actual, real-life, only-human editor reading your story.  Once you do that, all of these manuscript-formatting DO’s make perfect sense:

  • DO double-space your text.  Give her some space to breathe.
  • DO choose a standard font.  Times New Roman is most common.
  • DO use a readable type size.  12 points is probably most readable.  Do you really want to make her squint?  Because she just might pitch your story instead.
  • DO number every page, at the top.  (Picture the pages coming unstapled and you’ll figure out why.)
  • DO include your name on every page, and/or the title of the story.  (Picture a desk piled high with manuscripts that look exactly like yours does.)
  • DO start your manuscript with a cover page that includes title, your name and contact info.  (Add an approximate word count if you like as well – just make sure you don’t include the cover page in your word count!)

Before you send your manuscript, read the publisher’s guidelines completely.  Then, read them again.  And again.

Do your homework. 

Find out what else they’ve published and what they’re looking for at the moment.  And make sure you write a cover letter that will give the editor a very good reason to open your attachment (cover letters are a whole ‘nother post!).

How are you going to submit your story?

  • Most publishers accept online submissions, usually via email. 
  • Others may have specialized submission websites that help them track incoming “slushpile” manuscripts. 
  • Finally, some accept submissions only by regular mail, ie printing off your story and slapping it into an envelope. 

Why would they do that in this digital age?

Simple psychology.

To a publisher, mailing a manuscript shows that you have a minimum commitment level that email doesn’t. 

It’s easy to write any old garbage and attach it to an email.  Getting your act together to print your story out, staple it, find a manila envelope and stamp, maybe even include a self-addressed stamped envelope (regular size; almost nobody returns whole manuscripts), shows that you’re putting yourself behind your book.

So does proper formatting. 

Taking the time to make your manuscript look like what she’s expecting tells an editor, at the very least, that you’re coming to the table as a marketing professional… one with a very compelling “product” to sell. 

Editors are in the business of buying great books:  of falling in love, over and over again, with terrific children’s stories.

Formatting your manuscript properly keeps you out of that shredder or recycle bin.  Get her attention the RIGHT way, and maybe, just maybe, yours will be the very next children’s story she falls in love with.

Got any formatting secrets to share?  Leave them in the comments!

More advice on manuscript formatting for submission, from…

…And here’s a list of 17 publishers who are accepting directly-submitted (ie unagented) children’s book submissions.  Information can go out of date quickly; always double-check before sending submissions.


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